Photoessay-gallery: the story of sushi

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Regular readers will know that Tokyo is one of my favourite destinations both as a city and a photographic locale. Sushi is inseparable from Japan, and probably the only food I could eat every day without getting bored. I’ve visited Tokyo at least once a year for the last ten years; almost every time I shot at Tsukiji Market, the clearinghouse for a huge portion of the high grade seafood caught. It didn’t occur to me to try to curate these visits into a coherent documentary until before my last visit; at the same time, I found out that Tsukiji was going to close and be relocated to a new site in preparation for redevelopment for the 2020 Olympics. It would be the end of an era in more ways than one – and most of the proprietors I spoke to inside the market sadly agreed that things would never quite be the same again. Tsukiji is in so many ways an insular community unto itself, and a Tokyo institution. Today’s presentation is my tribute to that: a reasonably complete journey of fish to sushi, via Tsukiji.

You’ll notice that today’s photoessay is in a different format for a long-form photoessay. In the past, I’ve always presented all images sequentially but simultaneously in a vertical scroll; this means you can view multiple images at a time. I thought it was a good balance between being able to see previous/next images and establish a flow or context between subsequent images and focusing attention on an individual image. However, the disadvantage is of course each individual image might not get the full attention deserved, and pacing can’t be controlled. Furthermore, a page with this many images can be rather problematic to load. It is the closest thing I can manage to a gallery experience where you still see the remaining images in the show in your perhiperal vision.

There are far more images in today’s presentation than normal – 47, to be precise – which was curated down from hundreds shot over many years and many visits as mentioned in the introduction. After several rounds of culling, I felt this to be about the right number of show the requisite depth and nuance without being too draggy – it would be possible to do complete photoessays on any one element of the process, but that would both test patience and require a level of time and access beyond what I had. In any case, I’d be curious to hear any and all thoughts…try to approach it like a gallery show, and enjoy. Captions are limited to factual snippets and reside with the individual images. MT

The gallery is here.

Shot over a period of many years with more cameras than I care to remember; it doesn’t matter, anyway. Fish is in color; documentary is in monochrome.


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  1. Great photos!
    But burning question: Did you get special permission to shoot in the market? I’ve been there before and almost had someone chase me down with a hatchet for taking photos of them working or of the fish.

    • Permission is needed for the tuna auction, but not otherwise. So long as you be respectful and don’t get in the way, they’re generally all pretty friendly – and passionate about what they do.

  2. Very nice series. A shame that the market will be closing. I live in Chicago so I know what happens when a market is closed and moved. Things will never be the same. I do think Mr. Molitor makes two good points regarding the gallery. I would’ve like to have seen more Sushi images also. Possibly more to do with the actual preparation of the Sushi. I think you could possibly cut a couple of the market images to make room. Maybe one of the styrofoam images and no offense, but the man with the cellphone for me would be an easy cut. (Just personal I guess. Too many images of people playing with their cellphones out there for my taste).

    • Ah, but that’s pretty much it in the preparation of sushi: it’s beautifully simple yet rather difficult.

      The cellphone is a critical part of the story, if you read the captions: all of the vendors conduct business that way; they’re not there for the social media of the younger generation 🙂

      There’s actually minimal styrofoam in the images compared to the actual location. I think just about enough to suggest that there’s a rather large amount of styrofoam in plan…

  3. Great images. Reminds me of the Fulton Fish market in NYC which also closed and was relocated in a more modern setting. What was particular about Tsukiji market was the very special top fishmongers there; however since the special Japanese shrimps and fishes are practically no more, thanks to overfishing and pollution, it won’t be too much of a loss. Topnotch tuna (also in diminishing supply) comes from all over the world. To get an idea of what topnotch sushi requires, you might want to watch the2011 documentary “Jiro dreams of sushi” – really well made, can be seen on Amazon etc.

    • Thanks. How does Fulton feel after relocation?

      I’ve seen the Jiro documentary; a bit too much bokeh but otherwise interesting. Reportedly it made a superstar of Jiro though the locals don’t rate the place that highly compared to other alternatives…

      • Sadly the Fulton area is now part of the South Street Seaport, a touristy place with a few big eateries and the usual chic fashion shops – I don’t think any of the restaurants there are worth much, you pay mostly for the location – many of the interesting new restaurants are in Brooklyn where rents are not so outrageous. Or in out of the way places like the Indian Road Cafe, near Fort Tryon, way up the West Side. I haven’t seen the new Fulton Fish market in the Bronx, I suppose it is restricted to fish buyers OR you have to make arrangements, which I’ve been taken the time to do so far.

        I heard similar comments about Jiro’s restaurant, wish I had enough of a discerning palate to be able to tell the difference. Great takeaway from the movie, I learned why some tunas are better and command so much higher prices than others (less time fighting the line translates to sweeter meat.. ) and other details. Not easy to render in photos, I thought the documentary did a pretty good job there.

  4. Very good. And I learned a lot. Had no idea about the process and art of sushi. Well done. I do like the gallery with captions. But I like your stuff either way. 😊

  5. Andrew T Molitor says:

    Since you asked, I will share my thoughts. I may come across as negative because I will mainly be talking about things I think ought to be different, so let me start out with a few positives just to prove I actually am paying attention.

    The pictures individually hit a lot of very sound notes, often we see strong graphical compositions, almost always excellent figure to ground relationships, etcetera and so on. You know all this stuff, since you put it in there. Also, of course, the story is depicted thoroughly and clearly.

    The only remark I have on individual frames is really that you seem to have a lot of centered subjects. I didn’t count, but the feel, to me, was “he’s stuck the dude in the center of the frame again, arrg” and it felt slightly fatiguing. This is a very minor quibble, and could be entirely personal. As I say, I didn’t count, and it may be simply one of those things where I only “noticed” them when they came by because of some trivial quirk in my mood.

    I have two areas of comment.

    The first is the balance of the overall story. I feel like there’s a lot of “market” and not much else of sushi, the sushi-making at the end feels cursory. I think the whole would be strengthened in one of two ways. 1) by extending the project outwards, show us more sushi-making, more of the ingredients. Going back to a rice-paddy might be pushing it, but you get the idea. OR 2) by tightening in on the fish, and making it more about that, which really means trimming the sushi-making back to a slightly smaller set of very strong, very fish-centric pictures, to make it clear that this is a coda. In general, I feel like the market section could be trimmed slightly. There’s an awful lot of pictures of styrofoam (although, yes, that is one of your points). Again, you could probably go the other way — if the sensation in the market truly is one of “good lord what a hell of a lot of stryofoam” then I’d actually add a few *more* of those pictures, to make the point stand out.

    The second is in the way it’s sequenced.

    Consider the pictures starting with “Calling out an order”. We have a man framed by some objects in the foreground. The next photo is a woman framed somewhat similarly in her little booth, on the phone. In the next one we have a guy on the phone. Each picture connects in a direct visual way with the next one. I call this “walker evans” sequencing, but it appears in monographs all over, and I don’t even know if Evans invented it.

    Those three pictures are a *terrific* sequence.

    There’s also the sequence starting with “Expert cuts for minimal wastage” with the repeated motif of the knife. I would rethink the ordering of those 5 pictures to see if the same story could be told with a stronger graphical thrust. I feel like it “wants” to end with the 5 knives resting on the bench alone. I’m not familiar enough with the details of cutting up fish to guess accurately what other orderings might work, obviously you can’t sacrifice the documentary for some graphical pleasantries.

    The pairing of “Auction Hall” and “Last batch awaiting shipping out” makes a great frame for the market set, again because of the powerful graphical connection. They are in a way almost the same picture. I think making them both color could emphasize that frame, and/or you could go with some other distiinguishing device. Do you have enough pixels to crop them square? Then you’d have to figure out what to do with the last two pictures of heaps-o-styrofoam.

    Occasionally I pick up weaker echoes from one frame to the next, but I’m not picking up a lot of visual interconnection besides what I mentioned. Of course, there may be a ton of stuff I’m not picking up on.

    I think you can do better with the black&white versus color than to separate it as “documentary” versus “fish” (see, for instance, my previous remark about framing the market portion of the set). The way the essay reads, it’s not really clear to me what the distinction is. You young person weighing the chunks of fish, for instance, seems to occupy some ambiguous middle ground, as does “Aftermath” from the knife sequence mentioned above.

    I think you can do better with something to get you from the market to the sushi counter. I almost want to say “shove in a Toyko skyline” or something, just something to signal “now we are taking a break and moving to a new theme”. I feel like you’re going for that with the last two shots of styrofoam, but those are to me too intimately tied up with the market. We’re still “in the market” and then suddenly someone is making sushi.

    This reflects what *I* would do if they were *my* pictures which, obviously, they are not.

    Mike Chisholm gave me a wonderful tip once, to go get BookWright from and simply use it for sequencing. It’s actually a pretty great tool for that task, and has a pretty shallow learning curve.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. You’ve rightly hit on the balance between focus and expansiveness being the tough part. (I’ll ignore the story sequencing for now; there are some topic-specific reasons why things are in a certain order, because logically they wouldn’t make sense otherwise to those familiar with the subject matter.) It could be expanded into a much wider ranging set, but that might lose focus – and be too much for most audience patience levels. It could be tightened, but that might not be enough of a narrative. In the end I chose to focus on the fish since that’s the critical component of sushi – the rice may well make a separate essay on its own, and in a surprisingly similar/parallel form. But that’s an even harder world to get access to and another story entirely – one which I’m personally not as familiar with (and thus also far easier to make mistakes in the narrative) 🙂

  6. L. Ron Hubbard says:

    A shame that this amazing fish market will soon no longer exist in its current form.

    • It occurred to me this morning the next generation may well be thinking of the next one in the way we think of this one…or then again, the era may have passed.

      • L. Ron Hubbard says:

        Maybe, but most likely not. Markets that are picked up and moved into a new location tend to be pretty sterile compared to ones that arise organically at a particular location. Chicago used to have a famous market called Maxwell St. It was an outdoor flea market that sold virtually everything. It was at one location on the south side of Chicago for close to 90 years. Then the city decided to move it and use the land for other purposes. The new market is a shell of its former self and really nothing special. The old market had blues musicians, food vendors making specialty dishes and other pieces of color completely missing from the new market.

        Time moves on………………

        • You’re probably right – the relocations are almost always missing the organic feel of the original locations. Same thing has happened with some locations in Kuala Lumpur following works for the new subway system, and they’re really not the same.

        • You’re probably right – the relocations are almost always missing the organic feel of the original locations. Same thing has happened with some locations in Kuala Lumpur following works for the new subway system, and they’re really not the same.

  7. Lovely Gallery Ming with a nice mix of supply-chain, preparation through to final product images of this wonderful cultural institution.

    I am in Tokyo at least once a month for work and typically stay in the same hotel a few blocks up the road from Tsukjii market in Higashi-Ginza. I visit the seafood restaurants at the market frequently and always love going there, often for breakfast. The new market location in Toyosu (Koto Ward) will not be in walking distance for me in the future …so a trip on the metro will have to suffice to keep up the appearances.

  8. Jon Cummings says:

    I lived in Yokosuka for a number of years in the 70s and 80s and photographed the market a number of times. Your wonderful essay has forced me to search for my Kodachrome transparency collectionI have not looked at in years. Oh boy, what box are they in?

    Thanks for reminding me of sme VERY EARLY MORNING train trips to Tokyo.

  9. Oh – that was really good especially the shots of the people that worked there. It was nice to get a glimpse of the life they lead.

    • Thanks. I could see extending this far beyond into how working at Tsukiji has affected their personal lives too, but unfortunately didn’t have that kind of time or access.

  10. I was told still open till end of this year. Maybe 2 more quick trips?

  11. Per Kylberg says:

    The best I ever seen from you Ming! While your photography always is excellent execution, these images also expresses your emotional connection to the subject. World class!

  12. You have a great eye for storytelling but also for composition. I enjoyed watching the pictures. In the USA multimedia-presentations are en vogue. With some overblending, music and maybe two or three short videos (each maybe 5 seconds or so) and some comments of a speaker (maybe you?) i imagine this would be a highly popular story of Sushi (for internet-presentation of course).
    By the way i love sushi. We are lucky here in northern Germany to have a great restaurant with japanese cooks who have learned to make sushi in Japan so we can enjoy this delicious meal.

    • Thanks Ingo. I’m not one for the multimedia personally because it I think it takes focus away from the images, but I suppose people expect to be entertained passively these days 🙂

  13. adventuresinfilm79 says:

    Great images, really nice to see it up close and personal.

  14. Gallery requires Adobe Flash Player. Not a good idea to rely on this kind of risky software.

  15. jknikman says:

    fine storytelling Ming.

  16. Those were great to see. The word “unique” is overused, but it certainly applies to Tsukiji. I would always go there and shoot when I was up in Tokyo and it’s going to be weird to think that the next time I go, the market might no longer be there, at least in its current form – as I understand it, the move is slated for November of this year. I think high quality photographs from the current site will be important in the future as a record of historical interest…

    • Thanks. I’m sure there are a LOT of photographs from the current site though, given its popularity with tourists…part of the challenge is finding something unique in it.

  17. Wonderful images Ming. Which Sushi is in the second to last image? – Eric

  18. Charles says:

    Great work, Ming. Really captures the spirit of the place and its people.
    The Japanology channel on YouTube have a great little documentary on the market, well worth the watching:
    The current market is, of course, a redevelopment of a previous location. That history gives some hope that the new market will retain some sense of continuity and the old community within this Tokyo institution.
    Thanks for your work.


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